In many fields – especially in the sciences – it’s not uncommon to judge the success of an argument on, in part, the number of citations it receives. The most highly cited scientific paper has something close to 300,000 citations, which is amazing. Certain rankings of universities also use citation frequency indicators to rank schools on the basis of the academic output and significance of its faculty’s research.
One can see how this would make a lot of sense, particularly within an agreed discipline, but it becomes immediately problematic as soon as one compares across disciplines, not least because the number of people working in each discipline varies wildly.
Biblical studies is a small field, so I started to wonder, what range might one expect for the number of citations in, say, New Testament studies? There are different ways in which one can calculate citations, including subscription-based databases like Thomson Reuters’ Web of Knowledge, but this can also be done via Google Scholar. For determining the relative frequency of citation, it’s probably fine to use any single database, even if the ‘absolute’ figures might not be spot on.
So I decided to look for some hugely influential works in Pauline studies and see what number of citations they had:
Richard Hays, Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul (1989): 462 times.
E P Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism (1977): 796 times.
JDG Dunn, “The New Perspective on Paul” (1983): 111 times.
K. Stendahl, “The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West” (1963): 221 times, with another 310 citations of the book in which it was reprinted, Paul Among Jews and Gentiles.
J. Barclay, “Mirror-Reading a Polemical Letter,” (1987): 84 times.
L. Hurtado, Lord Jesus Christ (2005): 200 times.
M. Hengel, Judaism and Hellenism (ET 1974): 352 (plus a couple hundred in other editions, including the German)
So taking all this into consideration, we can see that even the most profoundly influential, field-altering works in New Testament do not break 1,000 citations on the Google Scholar index. This also means that if a book or article were to best, say, 50 citations, it is probably very influential, with those breaking 100 immensely so.